Indians on the Inaugural March

At the invitation of Theodore Roosevelt, six Indian chiefs marched in his inaugural parade as representatives of their tribes

Six Indian chiefs passing in review before President Roosevelt during his 1905 Inaugural parade. Left to right: Buckskin Charlie (Ute), American Horse (Oglala Sioux), Quanah Parker (Comanche), Geronimo (Chiricahua Apache) and Hollow Horn Bear (Brule Sioux). (Library of Congress)

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In the years before the 1905 procession, tensions grew between Native peoples and white settlers over rights to natural resources. The prevailing notion was that the Indians would eventually sell their parcels and assimilate into the larger American society by moving elsewhere to ply their hands at other trades and over time, the notion of Indians would disappear. (Within two years of his participation in the parade, Quanah Parker’s tribal lands would be divided. Within 20 years, the Blackfeet would be dispossessed.)

Meanwhile, Geronimo did not have a home at all. He had been a prisoner of war since 1886 and he and several hundred of his fellow Apache were transported to barracks in Florida, Alabama and finally, in 1894, to Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Geronimo hoped that during his trip to Washington, D.C. he would be able to persuade Roosevelt to let him return to his homelands in the American southwest.

According to a contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, the chiefs were granted an audience with the President a few days after the inauguration. Geronimo made his appeal through an interpreter. “Great Father,” he said, “my hands are tied as with a rope. My heart is no longer bad. I will tell my people to obey no chief but the great White Chief. I pray you cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished long enough and is free.”

Citing his worries that tensions would erupt between Geronimo and the non-Indians who now occupied his lands, Roosevelt thought it best the old chief remain in Oklahoma. Geronimo would again plead his case for freedom through his autobiography, which was published in 1906 and dedicated to Roosevelt, but ultimately, he would die a prisoner.

The parade was over in the early evening, at which point the president and his party adjourned to the White House. The six chiefs’ presence in the parade exhibited their willingness to adapt to the changes imposed on their people as well as their resoluteness to maintain a sense of self and keep their cultural traditions alive. An exhibition commemorating the lives of these six men and their participation in the 1905 inaugural parade is on view at the National Museum of the American Indian until February 18, 2009.


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